VIDEO: The experience of a first world war fighter plane

A ‘QUITE astonishing’ achievement has seen volunteers create a replica first world war fighter plane in Tangmere.

Aviation museum volunteers and engineering experts Bob Goodrick, Simon Fielder and Colin Lyle were challenged by the museum’s director Dudley Hooley in November to build a replica first world war SE5a, one of the earliest planes to take to the air in warfare.

At the gun - Colin Lyle working on the replica scout plane.  Picture by Louise Adams C140166-3

At the gun - Colin Lyle working on the replica scout plane. Picture by Louise Adams C140166-3

Not ones to shirk a challenge, the trio set to work and the biplane now sits proudly in the hangar at the museum, from where nearly a century ago the real thing would have taken to the air.

“I find it absolutely astonishing. It’s been built in exactly the way it would’ve been built in the early days,” said Mr Hooley.

The engineers headed to Hendon and the RAF Museum, which housed an original SE5a.

The team were granted half an hour to get up close and take pictures and measurements before embarking on their own project.

“It was gathering information and getting a feel for it. Then we trawled the web and got as much information as we could,” said designer Bob Goodrick, who created the designs on the computer.

“There was no sort of final plan,” added Simon.

“There was always an element of rummaging through scrap bins for bits and pieces.

“It sort of grew and became better and better in its own rights.

“I’m quite pleased. I was a little bit worried early on. 
I thought we were rushing it a little bit.

“Once we started to put the finishing bits on, it blossomed beautifully.”

Bob added: “It was very much made out of what was at hand.”

The replica biplane is now on display at the museum and is geared towards giving people the experience of what young pilots would have been facing when they took to the air, sometimes aged under 20 years.

Flown particularly during the first world war, the plane was used by a Major Charles Dixon, one of the museum’s featured airmen, upon whom they have a dedicated display.

Major Dixon was born in 1984 and enlisted aged 21. A recipient of the Military Cross in 1917, he later joined No 29 squadron in November 1917 as its commanding officer.

In 1918, he brought down three enemy aircraft while flying an SE5a and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“We challenged our engineers to build a replica as exact as it was possible of the SE5a so that the public during the year can sit in it and experience what it felt like to have sat in and flown an SE5a,” said Dudley.

“We will have engine noises in there, the guns are linked up to the firing controls so you will be able to press the Vickers gun and Lewis gun and hear the real sounds of a Vickers and Lewis firing in the air.

“You get about as close as it’s humanly possible to knowing what it would be like to actually fly in an SE5a.”

He said one of the amazing things about the replica was the tightness of the cockpit, which was a very tight fit for people and would have been even tighter with pilots wearing big fleeces and overalls to keep out the cold.

“To squeeze in that tiny cockpit is just beyond belief,” he said.

It was the smallness of the cockpit that proved to be one of the challenges for the designers – how to get members of the public in and out of what is a very tight space?

The team came up with putting the front half of the plane on a sliding rail, allowing it to be slid forward to allow people to climb in, before being slid back into place.

By March 1, it will be open for business.

The museum’s chairman, David Baron, also came to take a look at the museum’s latest addition, describing it as ‘quite astonishing’.

“It’s amazing when you think this is a volunteer workforce,” he said.

“When you amalgamate their backgrounds and expertise, there’s nothing they can’t do.”

The only things on the replica that had not been made by the team were the guns and the propeller which came from a real SE5a.

The team have not finished tinkering yet, however, before turning to their next project, with Bob saying there were still additions they hoped to make to the finished design.

The rear of the plane features a plaque in memory of one of the museum’s volunteers who passed away recently, named Ron Thompson.

The museum is open every day from February 1 to November 30. It is open from 10am-5.30pm from March to October and 10am-4.30pm the rest of the year.

Call 01243 790090 for more information or visit